Creating Life

“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”

My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.

At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.

I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.

“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”

“But does it have to?”

Careful, careful…

“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.

“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”

Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.

How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?

Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.

“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”

Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?

“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”

“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”

I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.

BAM.

Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.

It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.

What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?

She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.

Shit.

“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.

Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)

Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.

As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.

I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.

In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”

“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.

The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.

I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.

“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”

I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”

It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)

To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.

In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.

What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”

Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”

Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.

But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.

As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.

Extra Credit:

Rebecca Walker Explains Rift with Mother, Alice” from NPR

Taking Care of the Truth–Embedded Slander: A Meditation on the Complicity of Wikipedia,” by Alice Walker

“‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem that Writers Never Talk About Where Their Money Comes From” by Ann Bauer

Feminism and Tillie Olson’s Silences by Bianca Lech (or better yet, read Silences, a work that shook me way back in the day)

Late winter still life

We can call it late winter, can’t we? We have passed the half-way point, and the crocuses and camellias are now blooming…

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow is a picture book I’ve loved this winter. It invites us to see beneath the surface of things. Over the snow is a still, white world. Under it, hidden from view, a colorful kingdom of animals inhabit rest and safe shelter–a still life of a different kind.

There is, of course, life coursing through the objects on my table: Meals, friendships, memories, outings, unfinished chores. The very beginning of a season’s turning. It’s a mostly quiet life right now, a lull before spring storms. For weeks I have been living, at times, not unlike Messner’s voles, scratching “through slippery tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts,” and at others like her snoring black bear, “still full of October blueberries and trout.”

It’s important, I think, to be still from time to time. To stay warm. To rest. It’s important to know what’s beneath the surface of things. To pause and really see what and who surrounds us, from both above and below. To hold and appreciate what we can, as we can, all the while knowing that the crocuses will out, and the season of busy colors will return.

So tell me…

What is on your kitchen table?

What’s going on under the surface of your life?

What kind of paintings speak to you?

Oh, and if you want to see truly lovely still life photos, check out Oh Katie Joy’s Tuesday Things posts. Many times they open with a long string of photos, many of which are still life shots. I dare you to look at those and not see your own home through different eyes. Another master of the genre is Alicia Paulson.

Librarioholics. We’re a thing.

Hi, I’m Rita, and I’m a librarioholic.

The past few months I’ve been checking out piles of library books that languish on my nightstand past their due dates only to be joined by more books before I’ve returned them, and I’m starting to think that I love something about the idea of books more than I love actually reading them. I fantasize about spending a whole Saturday curled up on the couch with a book, but I never turn that fantasy into reality. Perhaps what I love even more than reading a book is the search for it, the anticipation of it, the possibility within it, the comfort of it. Some thing a book represents, more than the thing it is.

I blame this book habit–and my impressive fine history–on my childhood. Which means, of course, on my mother, the one who introduced me to books and libraries.

She has told me that she began taking me to libraries before I can even remember. She dropped me off for a weekly “creative drama” class when I was just a toddler. “I always wondered what they had you do there,” she’s said. She doesn’t know, having raised children before the advent of helicopter parenting and outsized fears about child safety.

I have no idea what we did, but I’m guessing I liked it. I’m guessing I felt safe and happy, the way I’ve always felt in a library.

Later, when I was trapped in the bog of misery that was my 6th grade year, she’d take me there every Saturday. I’d drop off the stack I’d checked out the previous week and leave with a new one, each volume a friend to get me through the long weekend ahead–because those weekends in which I needed distance from my parents but lacked proximity to my peers were so, so long.

Back then, I did lose whole days to the pages of books. I wasn’t discriminating because you don’t have to be when time feels unlimited. I read trash. I read weird things. I read things I’d read 20 times already. I read some classics, too. Compared to now, there was very little like YA then, and I struggled with being both too old for the children’s section and too young for the adult section. The closest things to books that felt written for someone my age were some corny series from the ’50s (Beany Malone was my favorite) and Beverly Cleary’s really dippy Fifteen and Jean and Johnny. (These did not equip me well for the late 70s teen social scene I was entering.) I did eventually discover the entire Judy Blume oeuvre and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, the title of which alarmed my father enough that he initiated a Serious Talk, a conversation I did not enjoy, and, of course, Go Ask Alice, which kept me away from drugs for a very long time because Alice was a pretty sweet, innocent kid (like me) and look what happened to her when she used drugs just once, and she didn’t even mean to! And it was a true story! (Except, it wasn’t. But we didn’t know that then. And by “we,” I might mean only myself and the writer I just linked to, possibly the two most naive teenagers of our era. I bet she read 1950s YA, too.)

All of which is to say that, for me, books were entertainment and companionship and guides for living, and the portal to them was the library. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton’s all the way out at the mall, and I didn’t have anything like enough money to buy all the books I needed even if they’d had a large stock of them, which they didn’t. My habit only deepened when I got my first job, which was (of course) at our local public library, where my favorite task was sorting the books for shelving. That’s how I discovered all kinds of books I’d never previously encountered, including a guide to teen-age sexuality that I snuck out of the building and never returned, and which was the source of my mortification when, as a college student, I realized that my mother must certainly have found it when she cleaned out the closet in which I’d hidden it.

I’m such a library addict that I purposely hooked my kids on it, too. When they were preschoolers I’d take them to the library, and right after that we’d go to McDonald’s, where they would play in the Lord of the Flies-esque play area and I would eat french fries and read a few pages in peace (or what passed for peace in those years). It was a total win-win. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I did it on purpose. I wanted them to love the library like I did, and I knew that associating it with McDonald’s–because we almost never went there at any other time–was a sure-fire way to get them hooked create that love.

(Remember, it’s all my mother’s fault. She started it.)

Now, I find myself in a season of life with much more opportunity to read, but I’m still not the kind of reader I was in 6th grade. While I’m no longer responsible for the feeding and physical survival of young humans, I do still have a life of my own I need to keep going in a reasonably healthy manner, and there are no such things as whole days spent on the couch with a book. When I do let myself indulge in a couch/book treat, I pretty much always fall asleep after just a few pages. Most of my reading is done in snippets–before bed, in the bathroom, while I’m waiting for water to boil or sauces to simmer, when I’m eating. Sadly, there are far, far more books that I want to read than can be read in the snippets available to me.

So, if I know I can’t read all the books I check out, what is my library habit really about? I’m not sure, but it’s a real thing, my librarioholism. It means I visit regularly, always leaving with a large haul that I fully intend to read, even as I know that I will not have (make?) enough time to read it all. Oh, I suppose I could, if I just wouldn’t let myself return for more until the books I already have are finished. But after about a week away, I get twitchy to go back, and I’ve come to accept that I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.

Maybe I’m hooked on the endorphins I get from anticipating a book, more than on anything I get from reading the book itself. (If I were Dinky Hocker and she actually shot smack, looking for books would be my smack.) Maybe what I’m really hooked on is the fix of the new and all its possibilities, all the different versions of myself that they promise I might be–a graceful homemaker, a fiber artist, a serious writer, a person who understands what the hell is happening in the world, to the world–and, by extension, to myself and those I love. Many of the books I check out are more aspirational than anything else. They are books I want to want to read more than I want to actually read, and I rarely get past the first pages of them, if I even pick them up at all. But still, I take them home. They teach me something about what some part of me–maybe a part I’m not even conscious of yet–wants or needs.

Hmmm… maybe it’s even deeper than that, and my habit is really some sort of hedge against death, against potential or probable annihilation of various kinds. See? my stack of books say to me. There is still time to be all of the things you might be and to live in the kind of world you want to inhabit. There are still people writing books about how to put on a nice dinner party, so maybe that’s something that might still matter and that you can still learn how to do. I have long joked that if the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, I will not join the hordes looting the grocery stores; no, I will be looting the library, a space I’ve long claimed as my church, a sacred place to go for answers and community and comfort. Although I’ve been tongue-in-cheeking the addiction metaphor, maybe my habit truly is not so different from the addict’s drug or the believer’s religion, just another way of coping with fear.

Ah, look at me. I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, and a dark one at that. And it’s Sunday morning and I’ve promised myself that I will post here once a week, ready or not. What’s the way out? I don’t know, any more than I know how to neatly tie up this package of words, but I’m guessing that if an answer can be found, it’s probably at the library. Better figure out how to fit a trip there into my plan for the day.

******

This post was prompted by a book I’ve been loving, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. When I read about it, I thought it might be a little boring. It isn’t.

If you, too, are a librarioholic, you might enjoy these reads about our happiest place on earth:

This article was everywhere a few weeks back–or maybe it just seemed that way to me because so many people sent it to me and/or so many library friends shared it.

But more important than that previous article is this take on it from one of my favorite librarians.

I would go visit these gorgeous libraries, glorious as any cathedral.

It would be the coolest meta thing if this picture book about librarian Pure Belpre had actually won a Pure Belpre Award in the recent ALA Youth Media Awards event, but it was an Honor Book which means it’s still cool. Just not as cool as it could have been.

And, currently on my Likely to Be Overdue List Because I’m Actually Reading Them:

The Inviting Life by Laura Calder (648). I want to live this kind of life. I’m getting there.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove (811.5) Don’t read this because it’s Black History Month. Read it because it’s good poetry.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (303.4833)–This one was recommended by my friend Marian, and now I’m recommending it to you. More on this later.

Daily Rituals Women at Work by Mason Currey (704.042). These are short, fascinating reads about the daily habits of women across various creative fields and eras. The chapters are like Lay’s potato chips: Small, savory, and you can’t eat just one.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch (Fic). I avoided this when it was published. I’m ready for it now. I’ve only just started it, but…Wow.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield (808.02). Many things about Pressfield annoy me. I’m reading this book because Anne Lamott can’t be my only writing teacher. We should rub up against what annoys us from time to time.

The Things that Matter by Nate Berkus (747.092) Not your typical interiors-porn coffee table book. Though it is a coffee table book with gorgeous interiors. I’m reading it for the stories, not the pictures. Really! OK, for both I guess.

Migraine trigger #248

“In January it might seem like teachers would return from a vacation and feel rested, ready to jump back into the classroom with energy. That’s partly true, but Aguilar has also found that the time off can decrease people’s tolerance for stuff they have to deal with in the classroom. They’ve felt like a normal human for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.” 12 Ways Teachers Can Build Resilience So They Can Make Systemic Change

Oh, y’all.

Did you see that last sentence? “They’ve felt like normal humans for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.”

So much there to unpack. I mean, what is “a normal human” anyway? What is normal existence? Seems to me that for more and more people “normal” life is some combination of low wages, various forms of oppression, unaffordable housing and healthcare, corrupt government officials, insecure/inadequate retirement, and fear of rising authoritarianism/the deep state/what crap white people are going to do next in response to their fears. (I’d put in links to substantiate those claims, but: migraine.)

And, do you see that assumption that not feeling like a normal human is just part of what it means to be a teacher? I know the article title implies that we’re to develop resiliency strategies so that we can remain in the system and the fight to change it–to which I can’t say anything but, Yes, of course. But can we for just a minute acknowledge how that’s such a tricky line to walk? How it may be counter-productive to keep patching ourselves with band-aids when what we really need to be well is surgery? Because then no one sees that we’re bleeding out, maybe until it’s too late?

I’m under no illusion that a teacher’s life on break is “normal” for any but a privileged relatively few of us (and I’m deeply grateful for the breaks I get, because I know many people don’t have anything like that kind of respite), but c’mon. I don’t think that’s what the Aguilar means.

I’m guessing she (and all of us) might define “normal human,” as one who is reasonably healthy with manageable stressors.

Since coming back from break, feeling so healthy and determined to stay that way (as opposed to the exhausted, brittle, fragile way I felt in the weeks leading up to the break) I have been self-caring the shit out of myself. I have been practicinggoodsleephygienemealplanningeatingplantsavoidingcaffeinestayinghydratedtendingrelationshipsreframingstoriesholdingboundariesowningwhatsminenotowningwhatsnotdoingcreativeworkpracticinggratitudeshiningalightonwhatsgoodkeepingabudgetbeingmindfulstayinginthemoment, and…

…my self-care is stressing me out, which I think is the opposite of its intended outcome. At the end of too many days, I’m just too depleted to do much of any of those things. All I want to do is to pick up a pizza and collapse on the couch in front of mindless TV and numb the fuck out.

But I’ve been doing them anyway, because I really, really want these things to work. I really, really want to be/feel healthy more of the time. I want that more than I want to numb out.

And it’s not like I have unreasonable standards or am trying to win some gold medal in the self-care Olympics. I cut myself slack as needed. On Thursday, recognizing physical and mental depletion, I realized I could not spend time with a friend and make my scheduled session at the gym and make/eat a healthy dinner. I chose friend (social connections/relationships) and healthy dinner and cut the gym (and doing laundry) and felt just fine about that choice. But migraine came anyway, sending me home early on Friday and messing with my weekend as well as my head.

What I’m trying to say is…hell if I really know what I’m trying to say. I’m too damn tired to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I need to get off this screen so the migraine doesn’t show up for a third day.

So, just 4 more things:

  1. This isn’t just about teachers. I spend most of my time with teachers, but this struggle isn’t limited to teachers. It’s about systems and conditions that touch many of us.
  2. I know I’m relatively privileged. I know I have it better than many, many people. (That doesn’t make it OK or OKer.)
  3. I don’t want any advice. I’m already doing all of the things Ms. Aguilar and so many others advise to build resilience. I AM DOING ALL OF THE THINGS. Your experiences–including things that have worked for you–is very welcome if you’d like to share that.
  4. Sorry for shouting there. It’s just, I know, OK? I know the things. This post isn’t really about the things. Sorry if I haven’t taken the time to express what it’s about more clearly.

One of the things I promised myself I’d do is write more regularly here. (Suggestion #10: Play and Create.) And I gave myself permission to sometimes do it quickly and to live by William Stafford’s wise counsel to lower my standards if that’s what’s needed to get words on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Practicing that hard with this entry in the notebook. (See: migraine.)

OK, just one more thing:

  1. Thanks for being here. Human connection really is one of the things that makes a difference.

Off to meal-plan and get to the grocery store early enough to avoid the crowds.

Learning Swedish is my current zoning out method of choice. It’s something I’m doing with my daughter (building relationships, being connected), and as I told her this week, it’s cheaper than therapy and healthier than drinking. I always feel better after a few lessons.

30 years

When I began teaching, 30 was a magic number. After 30 years, a teacher had earned full benefits in the public employee pension system and most could retire with an income close to the one they’d been earning.

Back then, it seemed to me that almost all colleagues nearing their 30-year mark were just a bit past their sell-by date. They looked tired. They sounded tired. Many said they were ready to go. I could hardly imagine ever being one of them. I knew, of course, that one day I would be, but that day was so far away it didn’t seem or feel real.

And yet, here it is. Here I am. I began my career as an educator at the end of January, 1990. 30 years ago this week.

A lot of things have changed in 30 years. In my initial teaching certification program, we had one half-day class on instructional technology that included a rotation on how to use a ditto machine. There was no mandated language arts curriculum in the Seattle public school where I did my student teaching, so I was able to make up my own. I had a snazzy new Mac with software on floppy disks, but no email or internet. There were no standards, no annual standardized tests, no school report cards. And–oh, yeah–no school shootings, no lockdown drills, and no room clears, either.

I finished my licensure program at an odd time of the year (December), and I was entering a tight job market. In a seminar on how to conduct our search for a teaching position, we were told that only one in eight of us would likely get a job. The eight of us earning a secondary language arts license all looked at each other when the presenter said that. Well, I thought, if only one of us is going to get a job, I need to be the best so I can make sure it’s me. I braced myself for a grueling search and at least six months of being a sub (the idea of which terrified me), but then I applied for a mid-year opening at a high school just outside of Portland, and the next thing I knew my young husband and I were packing up our belongings and heading south.

I don’t really know how to capture 30 years in a short blog post. I’ve been an English teacher, an instructional coach, and a district librarian. I taught grades 7-12, in 6 different schools, including an alternative school and a charter school. Twice I’ve been involuntarily transferred, which isn’t really the same thing as being fired (but it feels like it is), and once my colleagues recognized me as one of the best teacher-librarians in our state. In addition to teaching English, I’ve also taught keyboarding, humanities, and personal finance. Right now I am the librarian for every student in my district, grades K-12, a job that’s had me reading stories to Kinders and teaching seniors how to use databases.

Over the 30 years I have been on the receiving end of curses, tirades, tantrums, tears, and hugs (from both children and adults). Last year a 2nd-grader threw a pencil in my face and last week a 4th grader asked me for my autograph and last Tuesday high school girls outside my office talked in pretty graphic detail about their sex lives. I have kept confidences and reported secrets. I still choke up when I think about the autistic boy with finger-shaped bruises on his throat or the smart, loud, provocative 14-year-old who turned silent the day we read a short story about a girl with a sexually abusive father. I have both thrown out lifelines and blundered into situations I didn’t know enough about, causing damage I couldn’t repair. I’ve been frustrated, shocked, devastated, and disappointed, but also delighted, surprised, elated, and profoundly happy. I have never been bored. I have some regrets.

It’s such a cliche, but it’s all gone so fast. In my 30 years I have lived in 3 different cities, in 6 different homes. I divorced 2 men and raised 5 children. I graded at least 30,000 essays, give or take a few. (Probably give.) The years fly when almost every day feels like a race against the clock. Starting in year 5, I worked 3 shifts: I taught during the day, parented in the evenings, and after the children went to sleep I graded papers or planned lessons until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Every single week day. Well, I didn’t do third shift on Fridays, but I did it Sunday nights, and I can’t tell you how many sick days I took so that I could work all day to try to catch up. I also regret all the times I was not fully present for second shift because I let third shift intrude upon it, grading papers at soccer games or mentally planning the next day’s lessons during dinner.

It has always, in one way or another, been a struggle. Until a few years ago, I kept thinking that some day I was going to figure out the thing I was really meant to do. In the space that opened after the last of the children left home and I no longer had three shifts or a perpetual stack of papers hanging over my head, it occurred to me that it was probably too late to find that thing and that maybe I had been doing it all along. Maybe what we’re “meant to do” isn’t necessarily what feels most comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe it’s what feels most meaningful and compelling. Maybe it’s the thing we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from, even when part of us really wants to–and it’s not because we’re co-dependent or afraid of risk or incapable of doing something else, but simply because we can’t imagine anything else that could matter as much to us. Maybe it’s not so different from loving a partner or our children: No matter how hard it gets, we just can’t give up on it.

Like the teachers who were ending when I was beginning, I now look a little tired and am past peak freshness. Thanks to pension reforms, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and the aforementioned divorces, though, 30 isn’t quite the magic number it was when I started; I cannot afford to stop working yet. Still, there is a window opening. Being at full retirement age means I could retire from teaching and do some other kind of work that doesn’t pay as much to bridge the gap between here and social security.

I wrote recently about the revelation it has been to notice what I want. That’s something I’m doing now in the realm of work. I read about or watch the kinds of things other people do, and I pay attention to what creates a spark for me, that feeling of wouldn’t it be cool to do that? I don’t think about what might or might not be possible. I’m just noticing where the spark is. I peruse jobs on LinkedIn that I’m not qualified for and ones that I’m over-qualified for. When I see someone out in the world doing something I think I might like to do, I ask them about how they like their job. As I work at my jobs each day, I pay attention to what I love and to what I don’t, and what information those feelings give me about the qualities I might want to have in whatever is next (even if what’s next is more of the same). It’s been eye-opening, all of it, and kind of fun. I never realized how much I shut some thoughts and desires down before they even rose up, just because I thought there was no way to incorporate them into my life. (That’s a regret, too.)

Make no mistake: I am tired (of many things) and a little wilted (some days more than others). But the more I’ve been paying attention, the more I’ve been thinking that I might not be done yet, and not just because I can’t afford health insurance. I can see now what I couldn’t really see in those first years: Energy and freshness are vital, but so is the knowledge and wisdom that come from deep experience. I’ve got a value that no new teacher–even the most well-read, creative, energetic, and dedicated–can have. My profession and our children need both kinds of educators. I’m thinking that (maybe?) 30 is the new 20. Maybe it is not time to leave, but time (again) to make some kind of transformation within this field that is probably the one I was always meant to be in.

Or maybe not?

It’s hard to know. I guess time–and attention, reflection, questioning, and opportunity–will tell.

Wouldn’t it be grand if we still thought 36 students in a class was a newsworthy problem?

Radio Silence

My father doesn’t understand how I can keep up on current events, as I don’t watch television news and I don’t get a print newspaper at my home.

“How do you know anything that’s going on?” he asks.

I used to tell him that I got much of my news listening to NPR in the car, but that’s not true any more. I stopped sometime last winter. I’m more prone than I like to admit to feeling a little ragey behind the wheel (OK, a lot ragey), and listening to the news–even NPR news, which feels less inflammatory than any other–only exacerbated that.

I tried listening to music stations, but the inane patter of the DJs also made me ragey. And driving is boring. Or it forces me into my head in a way I’ve had a hard time tolerating in recent years. Or the internet has rewired my brain such that I can no longer peacefully endure a lack of mental stimulation. Or I have ADHD that’s getting worse. (Seriously. I just took a self-quiz. Yikes.)

For whatever reason, my old ways of being in the car just weren’t working, so I started listening to audiobooks when driving. My friend Kate recently asked me to recommend some, and over-thinker that I am I soon realized that I couldn’t do so without some tips, caveats, and explanations:

1. The narrator is everything.
If you don’t like the narrator, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. The narrator will ruin it for you. Xe Sands was one of the narrators of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, and I almost returned it before I’d hardly started because her inflection drove me crazy. I finally accepted it as part of the character she was reading–it did fit her–but I sampled another book she narrated and her way of reading was exactly the same and it kept me from buying it. The other reader of the Wendig book, Dominic Hoffman, was one that I mostly liked, but he’s also now on my (Probably) Do Not Listen list. I recently finished The Starless Sea, and although there is much I love about his voice, I’ve realized from that one that I can’t stand the way he reads women. They all have a slightly British accent, and they all sound simpering and breathless, whether they are badass scientists (Wanderers) or badass otherworldly beings (Starless Sea). Which brings me to my second caveat:

2. Complex structures aren’t great for an audiobook format. The Starless Sea is comprised of 6 different recurring books with characters and plots that intersect over places and times, and time is a construct the author is playing with so the multiple narratives aren’t linear. I now want to get the print version of the book and read it; I know I missed big chunks of it because I was consuming it in bits and pieces and I couldn’t re-read. Multiple times I told myself to give up on it and return it because I was just sort of lost in it, and I got tired of so many things smelling or tasting like honey and various twee old things and things that don’t really have a scent/taste but that sound kinda literarily hip when you are told that they do, but I wasn’t sure if my irritation was really with the writing or just the challenge of taking the story in through my ears rather than my eyes. I did finish it, though. Tommy Orange’s There, There is another example of a book that might not be the best candidate for audio. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book and the audio version has fabulous readers, but it has many narrators and characters, and they re-appear throughout the story. Multiple times I wanted to be able to flip back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of something that came before. I suppose you might be able to do that, sort of, with an audiobook, but it feels too cumbersome, even if I wasn’t driving while listening.

3. The longer the book, the better. I tried getting audiobooks from the library, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that work well for me and I’m not very motivated to because I have a Gold Monthly subscription to Audible. I pay $14.95 each month for one credit. Most books cost more than $14.95, so I get a bit of a discount by having the membership, and there are often sales and free books, as well. But, I only get the one credit a month and I’m on a self-imposed austerity plan, so I do pay attention to the length of the book. I recently finished Stephen King’s The Institute, which clocked in at just about 19 hours. That was a good, long listen, which took just about a month for me to consume. Every time a student used to choose a book based on the number of pages, it felt like a tiny piece of my soul died, but I guess I’m now that kid.

4. Fluff books and audio go together like cheap wine and cheddar cheese. Which is to say: Kinda wonderfully, especially if you’re thirsty or hungry and too tired to cook and aren’t looking for a nutritious meal. As a person who spent her formative years immersed in the worlds of Pine Valley, Port Charles, and Llanview, I am not averse to high drama, shallow characters, quick action, and a little suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like a soapy, fast-paced, easy-to-follow story where all I really want to know is what happens next, especially when I’m listening while merging onto the freeway during rush hour. Some recent favorites in this category: Ruth Ware’s Death of Mrs. Westaway, Kate Morton’s The Lake House, Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over, Taylor Jenkins Ried’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and any of Liane Moriarty’s books read by Caroline Lee. There are a few historical novels I’d also put in this category: Lilac Girls and The Alice Network are two recent ones I liked well enough.

5. Non-fiction can be just as good a listen as fiction. I prefer fiction. My audiobook habit is about escaping the world more than entering it, but there have been a few non-fiction titles that have a quality of story to them I really enjoyed. Favorites include Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (which has a pretty strong soapy element to it), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which is only 3 and a half hours, but so good). My hands-down favorite in this category is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a book I resisted because it was such a thing when it was published, but it’s one of my favorites in any category. Hers is an amazing story, well-told, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it–so I’m glad she is the narrator.

6. There is a sweet spot, but it can be hard to find. Books with easy-to-follow structures, some good drama, a little (or even a lot) of literary weight, and a narrator I like take me to it. In this category, I’d put: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee, (which I almost put on the soapy list, but it’s got a bit more heft to it than the others there), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The only drawback with any of these is that sometimes I’d really like to savor the language a bit, or go back and re-read some passages.

But what about my dad’s concern–which is really a concern that I am somehow not paying enough attention to the world and am not aware of all that is wrong? Is my new audiobook habit just another manifestation of my privilege, a way of turning away (because I can) from engagement with the barrage of injustice and corruption that we’re all living with and through?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not going to connect all the possible dots for you that are informing my thinking about this question, but I can list some other questions that I think are useful to consider as we all figure out how to consume information and be OK(er) in the world. (One more caveat: I am fully aware that in many regards, the world/my country has always been as bad as it is right now for many people. I know that my relatively recent understanding of that is a sign of the protected places I’ve occupied. In my thinking/search for coping strategies, I’ve been turning to those with much longer and deeper experience of living with/through hard things than I’ve ever had.)

Questions to consider:

  • What does it mean to be informed?
  • How can we stay informed and engaged without playing into the hands of those who are using media to manipulate us and control our political systems (this is a global question, not just a US one)?
  • How do we both stay informed/engaged and stay mentally healthy?
  • How is our current media landscape changing our brains and how we process information?

Things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Contrary to what my dad fears, my turn away from broadcast media and local news outlets is not a way of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la-la while Rome burns. And it doesn’t mean I am uninformed; I still keep up on the news through trusted print resources whose aim is to adhere to standards of ethical journalism. Listening to audiobooks rather than broadcast news is simply one way of preserving my well-being so that I can stay aware and informed and engaged. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I’m simply recognizing that miring myself in muck isn’t going to do any more good to heal my country of its sins than wearing a hair shirt would.

So: If you have audiobook recommendations, please do share. I’m all ears.

Dot-to-Dot

Fuck these guys! Really. But also: Let’s all understand what they’re doing so we can stop playing into it: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/1/16/20991816/impeachment-trial-trump-bannon-misinformation

Evidence that both/and is more valid than either/or. You can be pissed and righteous about all that is wrong AND still be joyful. In fact, maybe that’s the best thing we can be: https://www.self.com/story/charlottesville-joy-is-resistance

This exploration/explanation of self-care blew my mind open: https://blog.usejournal.com/the-unspoken-complexity-of-self-care-8c9f30233467

This is about the relevance/importance of reading poetry, but I’d extend the ideas in this to any kind of imaginative literature: https://electricliterature.com/why-all-poems-are-political/

This is not perfect, but it’s one of the best tools we’ve got: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

I’m glad to see this idea more and more: https://twitter.com/matthewjdowd/status/1217815533975941130

I really want more people to understand the differences between these things: https://guides.library.jhu.edu/evaluate/propaganda-vs-misinformation

This historian’s analysis of each day’s events has become indispensable to me. She posts daily on Facebook, but if you’re off FB (as we should all probably be), she also shares through a newsletter: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/

This is your brain on the internet: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/06/06/internet-giving-us-shorter-attention-spans-worse-memories-major/

This is old-ish, but relevant: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201206/the-psychological-effects-tv-news

Radio“Radio” by Under The Sun is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s beginning to look a lot like January…

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Christmas,” eh?

And yet, I like it.

I like beginnings. I like cozy. I like sweaters and warm socks and red wine and hot chocolate. Fires in the fireplace. Heavy blankets on the bed. A long happy hour in a restaurant bar with warm lights and small bites of perfect food and deep conversation with a good friend while rain pelts the windows behind us. (How I spent my early Saturday evening this weekend.) I do miss all the twinkly lights on the houses, but when I was driving to work Monday morning, I told myself that there’s a similar kind of something in the way the car lights illuminate the early morning darkness. Even through a rainy windshield.

On my winter break I did a whole lot of nothing much…
…ate good-tasting food (whenever I wanted to)
…sat around tables (with family and friends)
…read (novels and poetry and books about home improvement and starting a business and preventing burnout and embroidery)
…savored (movies, naps, my son’s face)
…laughed (a lot)
…cried (a little)
…moved slowly (through time and space)

I did the things I had to–cooking and cleaning and exercising–but only as much as I had to. Mostly, I gave myself permission to just be. The days passed swiftly, but there was a languid quality to them. Every afternoon I was startled by how quickly darkness descended and by how little I had to show–in conventional terms–for the day that had passed, but it was fine. It was wonderful, actually.

When the break ended I wasn’t excited to return to work, but I wasn’t unhappy about it, either. It was all good.

I have been thinking about what created the sense of well-being that is remaining even as I’ve returned to the routines that had me feeling so spent before the break: sleep, and rest, and physical movement, and connection with others, and creativity, and meaning. I had all of those in spades for two weeks. It was wonderful.

And you know what? I don’t want to give those up. I know that prioritizing those things just listed can feel selfish or self-indulgent or some other negative thing that begins with “self” (and if I had more time I’d do a deep dive into why we think that and how F’d up that kind of thinking is), but I think I’m a better person when I have those things–kinder, more patient, more fun. So, figuring out how to prioritize having that is a win-win, for both me and those whose orbits collide with mine.

January is a perfect time for doing that. It’s a time for the quiet and contemplative comforts of winter, without the expectation and demands of the holiday season. It’s not as outwardly sparkly, but I’m going to be looking for some inside sparkle. Or making some. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about how to make that happen, but I don’t have any big answers yet.

Dot-to-Dot

My friend Kim told me that she likes reading this blog on Sunday mornings over coffee (see, she already knows what I’m just figuring out about time and how to use it!) and one of my favorite features of my friend Kate’s blog is her Friday Finds, an eclectic and interesting collection of things to read. The offerings below are all, in their own way, connected to the ideas above, and my usual inclination would be to delay hitting publish until I could write some (probably overly long) piece connecting all the dots for you–which would likely mean never sharing them at all, because I’d never quite find the time to do it right and the moment would pass (by which I mean that these particular dots would have been pushed to the bottom of the dot pile in my head by newer dots because the dots never stop coming)–and so I’m going to experiment with just leaving the dots for you to peruse or not, as you see fit. Please let me know if this is something you’d like more of (or not).

The most powerful thing I read this week, about living and dying and marriage and the state of the world. It helped me understand why my own committed relationship (sort of) imploded in the wake of 2016 and really hard personal situations out of my control.

I want to be like Ken when I die. I already shared this on Facebook, but it’s so, so good. As a piece of writing, and as a guidebook for living (and dying).

I want to read and think more about the idea of a secular Sabbath.

This isn’t a read, but it’s about reading. And living. And meaning.

I love this case for blogging, and it’s part of why I’m hitting publish on this post even though it’s not in the state I’d usually want a post to be.

Happy Sunday, all. May you be as good at wintering as my Daisy, who is expert at finding a soft place to land and generally has a pretty good time, which is saying something when your lack of teeth keeps you from being able to keep your tongue inside your mouth.

In memoriam

34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.

I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.

But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.

The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.

I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.

I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.

Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):

“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”

You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:

We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….

Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”

Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.

I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.

He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.

Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.

In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.

Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.

Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.

The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.

I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.

This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.

I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:

Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.

Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.

I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.

I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.

We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:

…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”

Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.

It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.

Of vanishing children, time travel, story beginnings, and affirmations for a new year

Hey, Friends–

Happy New Year! I’ve missed you. Although the holidays have been good (really good, better than they’ve been in quite a long time) I’ve been missing a lot of people lately. People like these two:

My brother and I (circa 1974)

A few weeks ago, I read a stunning essay in the New York Times Magazine, with a line that stopped me: “The writer Joy Williams once observed in a novel that children vanish without dying.” Of course, I thought first of my own children, and all the different versions of them that have vanished and that I miss.

But then I was putting together a photo calendar for my parents, filled with pictures of our little family from the days when we were all living and growing together, and I found myself missing those earlier versions of all of us, who have also vanished without dying.

In the swirl of those feelings, and a birthday, and the holidays, and thoughts about love and loss and passing years, I began listening to Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, a complex, twisty tale that plays with ideas about time and story. Early on, the narrator tells us, “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.” In the novel, time is sometimes non-linear, and different characters experience it differently, even as their stories intersect. When I had fewer years of living under the belt of my life, I would have seen the idea of non-linear time as one that could exist only in the realm of fantasy, but lately, maybe especially because of the holidays, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a time traveler, living sometimes in the past, sometimes in the future, and sometimes in a time out of time–which makes notions of endings and beginnings fuzzy. Calendar years, with time divided into boxes and categorized by numbers, are full of arbitrary divisions that have meaning–if, indeed, they have meaning–only because we have given it to them.

In important ways, the children in the photos above are as present for me as the adults they have all become, even though I can no longer hold them on my lap and my brother and I are long past any lap-sitting days of our own. I miss all the early versions of all of us even as I still have them with me. The girl who sat on my mother’s lap is the mother who held my daughter on hers, and all three of us–my mother, my daughter, myself–are still able to exist corporeally in the same space, today. The years are both far away and close enough to touch; decades expand and contract depending upon how I am looking at them at any given point in time.

And reality, or truth, or story? Those can be as malleable as time, too. I may not be able to write new chapters in my story with those versions of us that have vanished, but I can revise the ones already lived. Or, maybe, I can write alternate ones.

For years, this was a photo of fault:

That’s me, 5 decades ago. First grade. It is the only school photo my mother didn’t buy the 8×10 version of. She said it was a bad picture because I wasn’t smiling.

Although I don’t remember her blaming me, I remember feeling at fault for her disappointment with the image. I knew I’d made a choice to be unsmiling. I wasn’t sad or incapable of smiling, and I understood that smiling was expected. But I was pissed. And I was damned if I was going to give the photographer who angered me the satisfaction of my smile. I hadn’t understood that denying him satisfaction would also take some from my mother.

Later, when I was able to explain to her why I had been angry, this became a story not about my willful failure to be pleasing, but about the cuteness of my righteousness. I was angry because the photographer combed my hair, even after I’d told him I didn’t want him to. Such a trivial thing to get upset about, right? And so, wasn’t that pouty face of mine cute? The story became a funny one, about a stubborn little girl. There was some admiration of my spunk in the telling of it, but “spunk” isn’t a word we attach to anything very serious.

Now, I look at that photo and I see a girl at the beginning of a story she didn’t know was beginning. I see a girl at the beginning of losing her sense of knowing. She knew that she should get to control who touched her. She knew that if you tell someone you don’t want to be touched, it is a violation if they touch you anyway. She knew that it didn’t matter if the person doing the ignoring and the touching was older or male or in a position of authority. She knew how to express her anger about the violation.

She didn’t know, though, that she was at the beginning of a story of losing her sense of knowing, about so many things, and that it would be decades before enough others would tell stories of their knowing about touch and consent that she would finally believe the truth of her knowing back then, in the beginning.

I miss that vanished girl, but she still lives. She’s still me. Or, at least, she’s still in me. I can still feel what she felt, if I travel back in time, a journey that feels both swift and impossibly long. And her story is still unfolding.

Last week, on the subject of new year’s resolutions, a friend told me that he is more inclined toward affirmations. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’m still not, but the notion has been rattling around in my head in the form of a question:

What do I want to affirm in the coming year?

Even though I find calendar years an arbitrary marker of time, knowing as I do that stories can and do begin every day, I appreciate the chance that our annual marker of a new year gives us to reflect and set intentions. Last year, I created a vision statement of sorts, a list of things I wanted to keep or bring into my life. This list became something I returned to again and again as the days of the year unfolded. Many times when I found myself feeling conflicted or frustrated or sad or meh, I returned to my list, and it always provided clarity and a direction for moving through the feeling and the events creating it.

It was through the list that I came to a new understanding last fall. In the face of a large disappointment in a situation I’d worked hard to improve, I decided that the only way to have many of the things on my list was to stop doing things because I felt I should and only do things I wanted to do. That felt all kinds of (perhaps) selfish and (potentially) unkind, but I concluded it was what I needed to do if I was going to realize my vision.

That decision immediately raised a question I had to consider over and over again, almost daily:

What do I want to do?

Not, What should I do? or What’s best to do? or What will happen if I…? Or, How will ____ feel if I…? Just, What do I want to do?

Often, I didn’t know. I realized it’s a question I’m not used to asking, and I was so out of practice I didn’t really know how to answer it much of the time. To just inquire about want–and not interrogate the want to determine if it (me) is right, wrong, good, bad, healthy or not, as well as what the likely outcomes of acting on it might be–was something I probably began to stop doing back when I was a little girl and learned that I needed to smile if my image was to be worth keeping large and that my boundaries weren’t important in the face of more powerful others’ determinations of my needs.

The more I began asking the question within the situation that sparked it, the more I began doing it in other ones, too. Although stopping at my answers and never considering any other questions would be a short path to becoming a narcissistic jerk, I think the question is one we all need to center in the process of making decisions about how we will live.

In another book I’m reading right now, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout, the authors write about the importance of being able to hear the voice inside us that tells us what is right and wrong, harmful and safe, and how difficult it can be for all of us, but especially women, to listen to that voice and act upon it. There are so many other ones clamoring all around us, full of ideas about what it means to have discipline, grit, strength, and faith. About what we need to find and keep acceptance, safety, and love.

It is especially hard, I think, when we don’t have words or frameworks to name what we know in ways that make sense to ourself and others, as it was for the girl I once was who knew it was wrong for a strange man to touch her hair against her wishes.

As we all move past the artificial marker of time that is a new year (a new decade!) I am realizing that what I want to affirm is the question that emerged from me over the past year (what do I want?) and the importance of asking it. I want to affirm that girl who knew what she did (and, maybe more importantly, didn’t) want–and controlled in the situation the only thing she had control over: herself. I want to keep her from vanishing by living my/our way toward a satisfying ending to the story she didn’t know was beginning, one in which she knows without doubt what is right and what she needs.

Wishing all of you who read here a year of stories full of good things that are right and true for you.

Gratitude and such

The turn from October to November has always felt like a kind of tightening to me, a turning of the calendar screws. Tonight darkness will fall an hour earlier than last night, the days that have already been feeling too short now feeling even shorter still–right at the time they seem to fill with more demands. Every year I tell myself to savor October, the last days when I come home to sunny daylight, the calm before the holiday storm, and every year it flies by as swiftly as the leaves fall. Last week, yet another in which I didn’t finish the laundry by Sunday night and it is still lingering in the basket this morning, a full week’s worth of days later…

…Damn, I got up to let the dog out, and then remembered I needed to unload the dishwasher, and then I responded to a Snap from my daughter, and then I let the dog in, and now I can’t remember what I was even going to say in this sentence.

Which is fitting, no? Back in January, I thought I might be able to change my experience of time–make it feel as if it were moving more slowly–if I slowed down and took more notice of things. If I savored it, I guess. Savoring, though, doesn’t look the way I tend to fantasize it looking. It isn’t long, sunny afternoons on the couch with a good book, or hours working on a crafty project, or slow dinners with a group of close friends, or hours to linger in a coffee shop with a decadent pastry and a beautiful beverage. Not for me, most of the time, anyway.

Although, there was a leisurely lunch with this one day in October.

More often, savoring is something that happens in the moments between: When I see the spider web illuminated by sun on my way to the car in the morning, or when I notice how pretty the herbs from the garden look when I toss them into the pot with a roast, or when, on my way to let the dogs out for the morning, I feel grateful for the twinkle lights I never took off the ficus after the holidays last year, and the way they softly light the early morning darkness.

Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of comforts: the delightful surprise that is grilled cheese on focaccia on a night I get home too tired to really cook; the tiny thrill I feel every morning when I open the door to the flowers still blooming that I planted in June; the warm feeling I get seeing my tired old dogs curled up on a blanket my great-grandmother crocheted that I keep in a basket I once used to carry my tiny preemie babies from room to room.

The best I have been able to do, when it comes to savoring, is to stop for 30 seconds and take a quick photo when I see something for which I feel grateful. When I take the time to notice everyday things, and then spend a few minutes at the end of the month looking at them, I realize that the days and weeks that have passed so quickly were actually full of small wonders. I realize that although it might feel as if I somehow missed the month, I didn’t. Not really. And it changes the story I might otherwise tell myself about what the month (or season or year) has been.

Sometimes I tell others that I really do love my new house, but I wish it didn’t have so much yard. I have said that I spend so much time working in it I never really get to enjoy it the way I’d like to. (See: fantasies, a few paragraphs back.) But when I scrolled through my October photos and saw the nest I found when pruning back the rose bushes, I didn’t remember how sore my body felt at the end of that day, or how frustrated I was when I ran out of time to finish the job and had to leave it–like so many things–hanging. Instead, I remembered the thrill of seeing the nest, feeling like I’d found buried treasure; how carefully I extracted it from the brambly tangle; the cawing and swooping of nearby crows when I pulled it free and sensed that everything is more connected than I know; the minutes I spent marveling at how tiny its bed was.

Right now, writing these words, I realize how much my joy and wonder and savoring happens not in spite of all the tasks filling my days, but in many cases because of them. If not for the overgrown roses, I’d never have seen the nest. On a different Sunday afternoon, I mowed the lawn for what I am sure will be the last time of the season, pleased with how tidy and green it once again looked, only to wake after a windy night to find it, as I rushed out the door to work, covered with leaves. It startled me, the change, and delighted me for some reason I still don’t really understand. Maybe it was in the contrast between what had been and what was that I found something to savor, or the way the leaves looked like tossed confetti. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the moment was a gift that would not have been possible without the chore that felt like it was keeping me from life’s gifts.

Three days into November, I am still a little sad to see October go, and still feeling a little trepidation about the holiday season now upon us. There’s a line to walk in these musings, some place between too much and not enough. I wish I could figure out some trick to both make time move a little more slowly AND still fill it with good things. I suspect, though, that it doesn’t work that way, and that the only way time is going to move slowly again is for there to be too much of it, which will mean that my life is empty of the things I now love–family, friends, meaningful work, and good enough health to have all those things filling my days.